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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 28 2012

Red Badge of Service

“He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee, no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.”

- from The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Last week, New York Time Columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed about how young people draw a distinction between working on Wall Street and working for “Main Street.” In his op-ed, he asserts: “you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero.” Fair enough. He also claims that: “In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure.” Very true story. However, I think his most poignant assertion was his plea for young, talented graduates to ask themselves the following question: “Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops?” How does one figure out an answer to such a deep, involved inquiry?

Perhaps the true answer lies in public service. As the Boston Globe acknowledges in this thoughtful article, Memorial Day is about sacrifice; “the holiday memorializes those who risked every individual hope and joy for the sake of the greater good.” While the article laments the demise of the Draft, I’d argue that, while not directly comparable, modern programs exist that draw upon the same values of civic duty, idealism, and self-sacrifice. For example, Americorps programs such as Teach For America and City Year enlist intelligent, ambitious youth to serve in our nation’s most impoverished schools for 1-2 years in order to strengthen and support struggling schools while their corps members develop their capacity for civic leadership that will benefit communities in the future. This would seem like a desirable, noble goal, right?

Unfortunately, because of the way non-profit funding streams work as well as the recent vitriol within the education reform debates, this ethic of service has been diminished in favor of what essentially amounts to arguments over “dollars and sense,” or the lack thereof. One could argue that people were okay with college graduates doing the dirty work no one else wanted until the economy tanked. Others might claim that viewing education as public service amounts to little more than a fast-track leadership pipeline. Where do the arguments end?

Personally, I prefer to consider ways to make existing programs more effective, so that we can improve outcomes for ALL stakeholders. In the past, I’ve discussed how I think TFA might evolve in a way that best serves its own interests. Many critics from inside and outside of the organization attack TFA’s 5-week Institute as both inadequate and insulting to the effort to mold effective teacher-leaders. With good reason, they want TFA to expand to three years and/or incorporate some type of apprenticeship or residency-like component to the program. In contrast, TFA cites evidence deeming such changes as both largely superfluous and detrimental to recruiting top talent. Initially, I thought it would be neat for TFA to diversify into a two or three-year program involving the following schema:

Year 1:  Assistant / Apprentice like City Year (take professional development courses, practice using data)

Year 2:  Full-Time Teacher or Full-Time Teacher (w/ CM assistant)

Year 3. Full-Time Teacher (with CM assistant) or option to take on leadership role to assist first years.

However, I’ve recently observed an increasingly common trend, which I think could boost the education reform movement in an extremely positive way. I’m talking about a partnership between City Year and Teach For America. Why not formalize a pathway to recruit City Year alumni as Teach for America corps members? I wonder if such a pipeline exists already. I was inspired reading about Gabby Fish, City Years Corps Member of the Year, who plans to teach through TFA in her former City Year placement school. She is now equipped with over a year’s worth of classroom training and community engagement before her Institute even begins. If we are truly serious about building a movement based on the whole school community and the whole student, we need to capitalize upon such natural sources of accomplished, empathetic, and civic-minded young people. I know that a lot is being done on the ground already in some cities, but I would love to see these top non-profit organizations use their clout and position to further catalyze the movement of a new generation of servant leaders.

2 Responses

  1. Jaime Botero

    Hi Anthony,

    Interesting blog. What I will say is that City Year is a bit late to the party compared to TFA in regards to tackling the achievement gap. It is not until like 4-5 years that CY leadership decided to make the high school drop out crises the focal point of their efforts. TFA has always focused on teaching and invests a lot of resources into studying and disseminating best practices.

    If TFA has plenty of critics because of training, CY would have a larger number. Training structures and support are improving for CY, but there is a lot of room for growth in regards to that. Perhaps down the road a TFA/CY would be a very good idea.


  2. Thanks for the insight, Jaime! You’re right that CY is relatively new to directly impacting the achievement gap in schools esp. compared to TFA. At the same time, what I like about each organization is that they seem to have approached the educational arena from opposite ends (classroom/testing on one side, community/holistic on the other) and are now converging somewhere in the middle, though CY has arguably shifted more.

    I haven’t been on staff with TFA and haven’t been a CM with CY, so I can’t speak directly to those experiences, but I enjoy learning from those who have been in those roles. We should chat again soon! For now, I’d say my staff training is better than my CM TFA training, but it’s probably not a fair comparison. Rather than compare the two, I would love to see them work together more in the future!

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